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NCT set to clash with Sunlake

Hernando Today correspondent

Published:   |   Updated: January 24, 2014 at 03:01 PM

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In its brief seven-year girls soccer existence, Sunlake has made huge strides.

After being doormats for their first few seasons, the Lady Seahawks (16-4-3) enter Thursday's Class 3A, Region II quarterfinal against host Nature Coast Technical (19-2-2) at 7 p.m. at Brookville's Shark Tank Stadium with a puncher's chance of advancing.

To see how far these Lady 'Hawks have come, one has to take into account their roots.

In 2007-08's inaugural season under mentor Chris Leko, they were wretched. They finished 0-22-1, featuring one forfeit and 19 shutout losses.

Those first-year Lady 'Hawks were outscored by 147 goals, or 150-3.

In that season's district play-in game against Hernando at NCT, Sunlake lost 5-1.

The next winter under a new coach, Rio Asad, the Pasco County crew entered district play winless at 0-21-0 before returning the favor against Hernando in the district play-in game at Hudson, winning 1-0.

The next evening, however, Hudson showed Sunlake the door, 6-1.

Sunlake concluded its second season 1-22-0, with 10 goals scored against 114 allowed.

But since 1996 Tampa-Leto High product Jami Finan arrived as coach at Sunlake's campus three seasons ago, the tide has turned.

Last winter, Finan guided the Cinderella Lady 'Hawks to their first regional berth. In their first-ever regional quarterfinal, Mitchell eliminated SHS, 4-0.

A year later, Finan led the young Lady 'Hawks to the 3A-District 8 finals at Zephyrhills' Bulldog Stadium.

Last Friday night, Land O' Lakes continued its mastery over the Seahawks behind a 4-0 win.

With the win, the Lady Gators reached the regional playoffs for a Pasco County-record 19th time.

The county's only possessor of a state girls soccer title (2A crown in 2003) will host another Thursday 3A-II quarterfinal against Hudson.

Meanwhile, the Lady 'Hawks are seething. They'd like nothing better than another shot at archrival Land O' Lakes next Tuesday. Most of the Sunlake and Land O' Lakes players come from identical neighborhoods.

The only problem? Land O' Lakes isn't the only team the Lady 'Hawks have never solved.

NCT has met Sunlake seven times and won all seven matches. In the process, the Lady 'Hawks have never scored a goal, losing by a combined 37-0.

On paper, however, the teams appear to be mirror images.

NCT averages 4.26 goals per game and has permitted 0.78 goals per game. The Lady Sharks have five scorers with 10 or more points and two players in double figures in assists this year.

The Lady Sharks are led by senior striker and Hernando Today Player of the Year candidate Hailey Lalande (27 goals, 11 assists).

The Lady 'Hawks arrive averaging 4.35 goals per game and have permitted 0.91 goals per game. Eight Lady 'Hawks have scored 10 or more points and four arrive with 10 or more assists.

SHS, however, will be without the services of three starters.

The team's leading scorer and captain, senior Cassidy Place (26 goals, 11 assists), graduated early and is currently at St. Leo University.

The team's other captain, senior Emily Higgins (13 goals, 11 assists), suffered a severe medial collateral ligament injury to her knee, and is out.

Junior Cassidy Kallenborn suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in her knee in the second Land O' Lakes regular-season loss and is also done for the season.

Due to the injuries, SHS has turned to its youthful roster. The Lady 'Hawks are led offensively by junior Kim Devoe with 15 goals and eight assists and frosh Kailee "Frenchy" Raberge with 11 goals and 11 assists, alongside senior Carly Hill (10 goals, 15 assists).

Defensively, freshman Landon Carter arrives with 12 shutouts and has been supported by her sister, frosh Addison Carter, classmates Emma Hanyok and Maddisen Traver, and sophomore Regan Goiran.

"Our anchor defensively has been Landon Carter," described Coach Finan. "She's a good leader and knows her players real well. She's fortunate to have played with most of those kids in the back on her club team."

"We don't know much about Nature Coast," declared Coach Finan, who did witness last year's regional final at Mitchell when the Mustangs ousted NCT, 6-0. "We're going into the game defense-first. We're going to have to hunker down in the back, but I don't like bunker soccer."

On how Finan sold this game to her crew, "The mindset has to be that we're worthy of playing this game," she said. "Our girls are still upset with what happened Friday. We've never beaten Land O' Lakes.

"Our girls play their best when we're having fun. This is a second chance. We'd love another chance at our nemesis: Land O' Lakes."

On the flip side, fifth-year NCT mentor Lisa Masserio understands the heat is intensified during regionals.

"From here on out, it about our preparation," noted Masserio, the county's reigning Coach of the Year. "The key is to play our best game. If our girls want to continue playing - it's right there in front of them."

On the team's current mood, "We felt like we've had a good run (NCT is riding an 11-match non-losing streak) and we played well during the district semifinal and final. It makes you feel like we've earned this."

Despite NCT's domination over SHS, Masserio isn't looking past the Lady 'Hawks.

"I see a very evenly matched game," she said. "I definitely think our team is hungry. There's a challenge to do even better than last year's regional final. The way we've played the last two matches has set us up very well."

With a win on Thursday, NCT would tie the Hernando County record for most wins in a season (20) established by Springstead under Polo Furlong in 2006-07.

At a Glance

What - Class 3A, Region II Girls Soccer Quarterfinal.

Who - Sunlake Lady Seahawks (16-4-3, 3A-8 runners-up) vs. Nature Coast Technical Lady Sharks (19-2-2, 3A-7 champions).

Where - Nature Coast Technical's Shark Tank Stadium, 4057 California St., Brooksville.

When - Thursday at 7 p.m.

At Stake - Winner advances to face the survivor of Hudson/Land O' Lakes in the 3A-II semifinal Jan. 28.

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